Stranger in a Strange Kitchen, 02: The Preservation of the Nation

Preserves, conserves. Jams and marmalades (anyone for onion marmalade? or oxtail marmalade?). Pickles and chutneys. Canning and bottling and smoking and drying and salting and and and. Every nation has its own methods and traditions, its own terminology – and, I am learning, its own beliefs.

In the UK we’re big on sweet preserves, whether we use our own hedgerow harvest or foreign fruits flown in from far away (the perfect expression of the Seville orange is found – I will assert – in an Oxford marmalade). Sweet preserves are popular here in the US too, but here they call it canning although no cans are involved at any point, and the process is different. We sterilise our jars, fill ’em with boiling jam, slap an airtight lid on and rely on the partial vacuum formed in cooling to keep bacteria out. In the US the seals come in two parts, a lid on top and a band around, and the tradition is to boil the jars in a waterbath once they’re filled. I am not a scientist and I take no position over the respective merits of the two systems, though I am endlessly amused by the internet wars between ’em, the accusations of complacency vs paranoia—

Oh, who am I kidding? Of course I take a position. I’m British: I stand four-square on the complacent side. I’m still not a scientist, and I may indeed be as dangerously wrong as so many people want to tell me; but, y’know. We’ve been doing it our way for a very long time, and botulism really doesn’t stalk the land.

Not that I’m any kind of evangelist for my method over other people’s. Do whatever makes you comfortable; I don’t care. Which makes me tolerably unusual, I find, as it’s a subject that does tend to bring out the missionaries. Even here in the States where everybody takes waterbaths for granted, there are differences in practice and opinion. Any well-researched and serious new book can attract a number of “She doesn’t do it the way my mother taught me! She’s not safe! Don’t buy this book!” reviews. Of course cookery is and always has been swathed in folk beliefs and customs – I am of the generation that grew up believing that you browned meat to seal in the juices before stewing, and we needed Harold McGee to tell us otherwise – but the art & science of preservation generates more controversy and more fixed positions, I think, than any other.

For the sake of clarity, then: this is not what my mother taught me. My mother didn’t make preserves. This is my own process, developed in recent years, and I make no claims for it except that it makes the best marmalade I’ve ever eaten – which is to say nothing, of course, except that it is made exactly to my taste.

Chaz’z Authentic Oxford* Marmalade

Buy a quantity of Seville oranges (in the UK you can probably find them locally; in the US you may have to order from Florida or California; I don’t know about availability elsewhere).

Wash and weigh your fruits. Remember that figure.

Now put them in a big heavy pot and cover them with water. They’ll want to float, so don’t be deceived into adding too much water (but don’t worry about it either; if you have to cook off extra liquid, you just get darker richer marmalade). Boil the whole fruits for an hour, then leave them soaking in that same water overnight.

Next day, fish them out and leave the liquid in the pan. Lay doubled-over muslin or cheesecloth in a colander over a bowl. Cut each fruit in half, scoop out all the innards – flesh and seeds together – and dump same in the colander.

Take sugar equal to the original weight of fruit (you did remember that figure, right?), stir it into the liquid in the pan, and set it over a very low flame. Stir occasionally, while you go back to the hollow rinds of your boiled fruit.

Cut each rind into shreds, depending how chunky you like your marmalade, and add those to the pan. Keep stirring to help the sugar dissolve. (You can also warm the sugar in a low oven before you add it; that helps too. I used to buy confectioners’ sugar in the UK, but I can’t find it over here. Don’t buy the stuff with pectin added; you do not need extra pectin. Trust me on this.)

Tie up all the scooped innards in their cloth, to make a bag of it. Squeeeeze out all the liquid you can, into the bowl beneath (which will already have caught a lot of drippings). Add that liquid to the pan; then add the bag of innards. Retain the colander in the empty bowl; you will need it later.

Don’t let the liquid boil until the sugar has dissolved. Once you’re happy that it has, bring the thing to a vigorous boil. Stir it often. If you have a thermometer, bring it up to 220-odd degrees, the setting point for jam. Whether you do or not, test it anyway on a cold saucer (see internet for details). Once it starts wrinkling, it’s ready.

Turn off the heat and let it sit undisturbed for ten minutes (this helps prevent all the peel from floating to the surface in the jar. Don’t ask me why, but it does). Meanwhile, fish out the bag of innards (carefully! boiling sugar! very hot!), set it in the colander and squeeeeeze out as much liquid as you can, using a wooden spoon or a spatula or anything except your bare hands.

Empty all that extra liquid back into the pan; it’s not just full of flavour, it’s full of pectin too.

If there’s any scum sitting on the surface of your pot, stir a lump of butter into it. That dissolves the scum. Don’t ask me why.

Now bottle it up in sterilised jars, using your preferred method of sealing. If you want to use a waterbath, carry on; don’t mind me. If not, wipe off any sticky spillage, label up and you’re done.

*NB – I am from Oxford. That makes it authentic, by definition.

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About Chaz Brenchley

Chaz Brenchley has been making a living as a writer since the age of eighteen. He is the author of nine thrillers and several fantasy series, under the names of Daniel Fox and Ben Macallan as well as his own. Chaz has recently married and moved from Newcastle to California, with two squabbling cats and a famous teddy bear. You can find his work in the BVC Ebookstore.
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8 Responses to Stranger in a Strange Kitchen, 02: The Preservation of the Nation

  1. Me, I am of the “put a lid on it and let the heat create a vacuum” camp. I didn’t realize this was a cultural thing, but am unsurprised to find, once again, that I come down on the side of Anglophilia. So predictable.

    • My mom always used a thin film of melted paraffin on the top of the jam/preserves/marmalade before putting on the lid. We always discarded said paraffin when opening a jar but some of the neighbors washed and remelted it for the next batch.

      For whole fruit we used a water bath. For veggies we used a pressurized water bath. I used to do a lot of this during my flower child/earth mother phase. Not anymore, too much work for the little T and I use.

  2. Karen Williams says:

    My mother used a thin film of melted paraffin, too. I found that annoying, as one more barrier to getting to the fruit. But then, I know nothing about cooking or preserving (though a lot about eating).

  3. Liz Williams says:

    I did this last week and it took ages to ‘wrinkle up.’ By the next morning it had set a bit, but was still runny – now it’s fine, though.

  4. cgbookcat1 says:

    I just made a spiced 3-citrus marmalade last weekend and used all of my lids, so I’ll bookmark your recipe for the next time. It sounds delicious!

  5. Jeremy says:

    If you pressurize with a water bath, the preserves cook further (since they’re surrounded by boiling water). This can take a nice, bright jam that’s at the perfect state into an over-cooked paste. Speaking from experience here…

  6. Cat Kimbriel says:

    Are you looking for confectioner’s sugar that has no corn or potato or anything else to keep it fluffy? Because powdered sugar is on every baking aisle in America. I know about gelling sugar, but have never used it — I’m a freezer jam famil. Mom either never learned to can or didn’t teach us. The water bath intimidates? In my case, the weight of the pressure cooker intimidates.

    No more browning meats to seal — you mean we’re actually admitting we do it for taste of seared flesh? I cook in a water bath now, I confess.